Happy New Year?

Happy New Year Dear Reader, and thank you for continuing to read my twice monthly drivel that spews forth from my  obviously damaged mind. Maybe it’s reassuring for you to have somebody madder than yourself?  Or maybe I just admit it and embrace it!

I think at the beginning of any year we always look back to the previous year and basically just hope for the best. That’s  exactly what I did in 2019 and look where it got us!  So this year I’m going to look back and search for the great positivity from 2020. 

I think many of us would describe 2020 as the shittiest of years for a long time.  We were introduced to Covid and saw a lot of our everyday freedoms curtailed in quite a disconcerting manner.  Our dear President Manu, declared that we were at war with this deadly virus.  And made sure the press scared us into complying with some very draconian policies to “protect” us.  So to those who are still alive I say, well done!  To those of us who are still alive I  say, don’t forget those who didn’t make it.  I’m not going to go into inflated figures of Covid related deaths and all the conspiracy theories that might exist, because when you’re  dead, you’re  dead, Covid or no Covid. 

At the beginning of my year I am usually on holiday from work and will think how far away August seems until we get to go on holiday again.  I, like many of my colleagues with look to the month of May, and its streak of bank holidays, labour day on the 1st of May, VE Day on the 8h of May, even though France at best came in a slight second, Whit Monday, and Ascension Thursday.  We are looking to see if it is a worker’s year, or a year for the bosses.

Let me explain to the non French of you.  In France we have a concept that is a wonderful thing, called “le pont” or the bridge.  If a public holiday falls on a Thursday; we get the Friday off too, and the same for a Tuesday; we get the Monday off. If the holiday is on a Wednesday, you get the Wednesday off.  You can’t  win ’em all!

I’ve  just checked on the calendar, and this year it’s half and half.  The 1st and the 8th are on Saturdays, so tough!

Right, now that you know about the concept, you will realise that we look to the month of May as being a way to get a couple of long , and most importantly, paid, weekends.  The weather is usually good and gives us a foretaste of Summer.  Brilliant right?  It also helps “bridge” the gap between January and August, which can be very long otherwise.

Well in 2020 all bets were off.  We discovered a new concept that year. The concept of lockdown.  On the 17th of March, the country went into lockdown, which was basically house arrest, but you’re allowed out to buy groceries, to get one hour’s exercise a day, but that’s  it. Translated into reality the country pressed the pause button, and everyone was put on furlough, with 85% of net pay paid by the government, and the rest by the company.

House arrest isn’t a very positive term, so let’s  make it more positive.  At the Eve of Saint Patricks Day, my local supermarket stocked up on Guinness and put it on special offer!  Daddy was going to have some special Daddy time, and not have to worry about going into work the next day. My son had set up clandestine meetings with his new girlfriend, and despite our protests decided to go out and visit her.  Sex is a powerful driving force…  we said that it would be silly to pay a fine of 135€ just for that.  The following week she moved in with us and spent the whole of lockdown with us.  That brought a certain animation into our lives and despite the intensity of it all, it could have been a lot worse. 

It also afforded me time to rest. I mean proper rest.  A rest from everyday life.  Not like a holiday rest, but a rest never the less.  It made us realise how speical such a moment can be.  It allowed us time to be physically present with each other in a way that “normal life’ doesn’t afford us.  It allowed us to discover a new person. With faults, but also great qualities. The first being that she is a cheap drunk, which in our family who has had a great fondness for drink drinks for generations is really a blessing.  I’m  not saying that we are all alcoholics, despite our Irish roots, but we do partake and enjoy a drink drink. As opposed to a drink, which is left for total abstainers which are a curse on humaity. 

I discovered that my daughter has a fondness for making cakes, and not only just of making them, but is quite good at it.  This brings joy to my heart, as I too, have a fondness for cakes, especially eating them!

We lost track of time, and with hindsight, I realise what a luxury that is.  We all have our phones on constant alert, we all have things to do, we all like to consider ourselves busy, but there,  we were all on hold. Not just people like me but everyone.  Yes, I’m  talking about you, celebrities.  Those people on TV,   those people on our screens.  We saw them trying to prove how they were still relevant on various podcasts, and showing what they looked like without the glamour and  how like us they were, in their massive houses, with massive kitchens, and how in reality they look as shitty as we do on a morning after having had some drink drinks.   I think they burst the bubble and broke the illusion of magic that surrounds them. That’s  an other great thing about Covid.  It showed us the sameness of humanity.  People in my little council house were under the same restrictions as those in mansions. Money and fame couldn’t protect them.  Talk about a level playing field. 

It gave me time also to get back into film photography and my greatest achievement was to conquer my film funk.  I discovered what I had been doing wring and no longer make that mistake. 

Towards the end of that first month of lockdown, cracks were staring to appear, but we still managed to get along enough so as not to kill eachother before Covid would.

I came out of lockdown early in order to go back to work on the 20th of April. As you know I am a big lad, and my BMI is above a certain level which could have allowed me to remain on lockdown and not go back to work.  But as I said to my boss, I’m  not going to get any thinner by staying at home, and the idea of having somebody in “my” stores, not working the way I did was abhorrent.  At the time I was also the only person working in my stores that knew all the products etc…  I was therefore allowed back.

Restrictions were gradually lifted and we came out of our shelters with our masks on, and started to look forward to Summer.  A trip to the UK was definitely out of the question, and my little getaway to Hull, would be cancelled.  I negotiated well and got all my money back. I was one of the lucky ones.  By early July travel restrictions had been lifted and as I had some time off from work, I took my daughter to Paris for the Day.  I rediscovered the  capital after having beem away for 20 years.  I also got to spend some quality time with my daughter.  We had the chance to meet up as a wider family, so for the Fête Nationale, and met up with other membres of the French family to celebrate.  Thanks to Sean Tucker and his very educative videos, I had launched myself into the world of portrait photography and was fortunate to have some willing victims to be portraited…  We even celebrated the 60th birthday of a great friend too. It felt almost normal again. 

August saw me going back to Paris twice and loving the capital as much as ever.  I’ll be back!

Spetember seemed to be very normal, but mask wearing seemed to be coming back into fashion. This would not be your typical rentrée. Even in  the windband things were going to change as lockdown 2.0 came info force.  Lockdown 2.0 was an awful lot like what I lived through in April.  Everyday freedoms taken away, except I could still go to work, and al5hough regearsals, they had changed and we were spaced out in the rehearsal romsphyically I mean of course. No mushroomswere harmed in any way.  Come Novemeber concerts were cancelled and we discovered curfews, but only in certain counties.  But it was all just putting off the inevitable further lockdown. 

Christmas was relatively normal and we were allowed to go to the non essential shops again on the 15th of December.  The government installed a nationwide curfew, but would not enforce it for Christmas.  It was good to be together again as a family and celebrate a very special birth.  Don’t worry, I’m  not going to give my Christmas sermon about how God the Son, part of the Holy Trinity, allowed himself to experience a full humanity, and human fragility. Born not as King, despite being God.  Humanity, human fragility, and exceptional humility. 

New Year’s Eve technically was under curfew. My wife had decided to get the house looking ship shape for that evening’s meal.  That means that it is a wonderful opportunity to bugger off and not be there to annoy her by just existing and breathing. 

Last Year I had buggered off to Nantes and spent the afternoon and early evening taking photos of the Hangar  à Bananes, so this year decided to do something else. This might just be turning info a tradition…  possibly…

Over the two weeks of holidays, my sleep has gone haywire, and although I sleep enough hours it is a broken sleep. Today it would be different. I had decided to bugger off to the beach in Noirmoutier and would enjoy the sun coming up over the last day of this rather “particular” year. The alarm went off at 6am. You see how serious I was? My camera kit was in the car. I shut the car boot and my cup of tea fell off the car roof and broke. It was as if 2020 wanted to get the last laugh. Bitch! I still got off on time and the road took me past my factory. Thankfully I didn’t stop and kept going. I arrived at the supermarket in Noirmoutier at opening time, and decided to go and have a pee in the supermarket toilets.

I went into the toilets and discovered the light was broken. I wasn’t going to pee in the sink, which has been an option, albeit an emergency option in the past. Luckily I had my phone, and used the torch on that to light my way. I got my sandwich and went back to the car. Ate the sandwich, and headed off to my final destination. The rest as the say is history, and you will see the pictures at the end if this article.

So now you’re pretty much up to date. I have seen may Instagram stories being rather rude about 2020, and how shitty it was and how 2021 can only get better. But taking stock, 2020 was a good year. People got together against a common foe, people realised that life has more important lessons for than Facebook. People realised that there are so many more important things in life, like family, and freinds, and the importance of all these social interactions that have been withheld from us. I know now where my priorities lie, and how much I treasure them. Has it been easy? Not every day. But with vaccines coming out, maybe there is light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe i will even be able to get back and visit the UK despite Brexit. Maybe Brexit might even work. A free trade agreement is all that Britain ever wanted anyway. 2021 will undoubtedly have its own set of challenges but 2020 has shown us that we can get through things that might seem impossible. Let us hope so anyway!

The Quiberon Peninsular

As any visit to my French family worth its salt, there is always drama. Drama and booze. This is why I refuse to drink whilst there. Usually everything is my fault. I am the immigrant after all! But this time it wasn’t me. I was in such shock that I had to go and lie down after lunch. I was respecting the ultimate French custom of the sieste. It was for digestion. And the fact that I was knackered always being alert for not saying the right thing and pissing everyone off.

So as I said, this time it wasn’t me, or my brother in law, who is the other family scapegoat. All of a sudden I heard world war three coming from downstairs. I thought it wise to stay in bed and pretend to sleep. One the fallout had fallen out, I risked going downstairs asking what the feck just happened and making sure everyone knew perfectly well that it wasn’t me this time as I wasn’t even there!!!

My brother in law doesn’t follow my zero booze rule, was just really mellow. A really nice bloke and we reflected laughing about our near 30 years of victim-hood. We are really in the Zeitgeist!

People had dropped off and disappeared to the beach before going to the restaurant that evening to allow my mother in law to just sit at table and be served. There is an important rule in her house that must be respected at all times. Anyone who has a penis is not allowed in her kitchen. I have a penis and therefore the kitchen is out of bounds. I daren’t even make myself a cup of tea, and don’t get me started about cake.

As usual,I had prepared the terrain. They know I don’t like going to sit on a beach. I don’t even go swimming. I’m so fat that there isn’t a swimming costume my size. Also those bastards from Greenpeace come along in their zodiacs and try and push me out to sea. The first time it happens, it’s all fun and games, but the second time I start to get slightly miffed! I therefore do not do beaches. What I do do is to take photographs. As I hadn’t partaken of the daemon drink I was able to drive, I could drive. I could escape. And escape I did. I actually thought about going to the pub in Nantes, but then I would really be up the creek without a paddle. It would almost be worth it, but I’m not a masochist!

I thought I would take my camera and go to Quiberon and go and see the Côte Sauvage, and a beach where I had already taken some nice photos with a film camera. Tell me if you want to see those film photographs then I might have to think about editing this post and add them later.

But here I was with my Fujifilm XT2 digital camera. I also wanted to use colour in these photos. I know…. Not black and white. What is happening to me? What has the world come to?

Sooooo, I was on the coast and in the zone. My mind was just doing instead of thinking. All reflective powers had been given up in order to concentrate of getting “the shot.” I like being like this. It is my coping mechanism. And you need this. Why is being with my mother in law like going camping? Because it’s so fecking intense!

I had done my first beach. I went to the first car park on the Côte Sauvage. I parked up and then started looking for shots. All of a sudden my phone goes off, and I have my wife yelling at me for being a fecking idiot and how in God’s name was I supposed to be at the restaurant on time. I learnt what a dick I was and how I never think of anybody else, and I’d bloody well be there at such and such a time.

I didn’t have the address and nobody had talked to me about time etc. But this of course was my fault. It’s a shame because you may have had more photos to look at. But I did what I could.

Let me assure you that I am still alive and despite being yelled at when I told them what time I would be there according to my GPS, I was still keeping it together man! I followed the exact route that the GPS sent me on, and I actually arrived at the same time as everyone else. I didn’t speed. I am not a sporty driver, I’m a middle aged fat guy who takes his time. O sweet irony. They couldn’t believe me. But the proof was there for all to see!

Let’s get back to the photos. I hope you enjoy them. Feel free to leave any constructive criticism. PS I do actually like my wife’s family, and some of the members of said family are actually quite normal and decent people who are not psychotic or hysterical.

The Lockdown Diaries Part 2

If you’re still here then it means that you’re still alive and not dead from Covid 19, or the light beer virus for those in the know, which is a good thing after all. Soooo…

Lockdown is officially over but it doesn’t really feel like it. People are still covering their faces with masks, which would have been a motive to arrest people during the Gilets Jaunes demonstrations. Strange how things change so quickly.

I have a tendency towards social anxiety that can be treated with beer, but not the light variety. I tend to withdraw into my room and not come out. For the others it must be like living in a Victorian Mansion where you don’t go onto the East Wing despite the ominous noises that come out from there. Or me being a legend like the depressive yeti, where it was once seen near the fridge but then vanished. I think I mentioned that my son’s girlfriend was living with us during lockdown, and then one day there was a knock on my door, and she told me she was going home to her mother’s. That came a bit out of the blue, and I went into anxiety overdrive, like why is she leaving, what had my son done, what had any of us done, I’m sure I always flushed the toilet, didn’t I buy her her favourite jam for breakfast etc. Apparently it had been planned all along. She was just there for the duration…

It’s strange how you can get used to a situation and then all of a sudden everything changes and you don’t know what world you are living in anymore. It’s like entering the Twilight Zone, nah nah nah nah, nah nah nah nah….

Things are open here like shops, Mac Donald’s, schools and the like, but it’s not the same. The omnipresent fear of the dreaded virus is strong. No touching people, no being close to people, changes at work…. I hate it. Sometimes I’d rather be dead. Human kindness seems to have packed up ship and buggered off. Human warmth doesn’t exist. There is just this fear. People being short tempered and distant, and complaining about everything. Not just suspicious minds, but suspicious everything. The authorities say one thing one day, and then it changes. When we need strong leadership we realise that they are as shit scared as the rest of us and don’t know much more than we do. And yet life goes on, but I hate this life.

So what can I do about it? Not a lot. When I get to work I have to go through a checkpoint managed by my workshop bosses. They take my temperature, and put a small amount of gel into my hands. Nobody shakes hands anymore and you just go to your work station. The coffee machine has been shut off, and I really feel isolated in my stores. People used to come in and have a chat, but that’s gone. And I’m the lucky one. I have Alexa with me who plays me BBC Radio 2. The presenters do a great job, and it makes me feel less alone, but it’s not the same.

I know I shouldn’t complain and just keep calm and carry on, take it on the chin, and stiff upper lip and all that, but this situation is without precedent in my lifetime, and is slowly wearing me down. Thank God I still have my photography. It really is my only therapy and gets me out of the house and doing something constructive.

Talking about photography, let’s please, move onto something les anxiety inducing. The following photos are of the pond and prairie that I talked about in my last article. There is a mixture of digital and film photos. I have been exploring the notion of pushing film. This not involve putting a film canister in the table and nudging it forward gently, but not exposing it at box speed.

Let me explain. I buy Ilford HP5 Plus black and white negative film. Normally it is to be exposed at 400 ASA. However, by under exposing and extending the developing time you can get a little more contrast on the negative. Other consequences are that with less light, I can still have smaller apertures and get more in focus. I will get more grain but that’s fine. It adds to the analogue photo I think. You’ll see what I mean when you see the photos. There will be three galleries, one showing digital images, one showing the images from the film exposed at 800 ASA, and the last gallery showing images exposed at 1600 ASA. How does that sound?

This first gallery was taken with the Canon 6D Mark II and the 16-35 mm F4 lens.

This second gallery was taken on the Pentax ME Super with a 50mm F1.7 lens with Ilford HP5 but pushed to 800 ASA

This last gallery was taken on the Canon AE1 Program with a 50mm F1.8 lens on Ilford HP5 but pushed to 1600 ASA

Passage du Gois, and the Port du Bec

I seem to have this habit of going into Nantes with my camera and using it as an excuse to have some me time, eat cake, and drink tea. Now I’ve been told about how self-care is important but it’s beginning to show around my waist. I think it might be making me lazy as far as photography is concerned too.

So, what to do? Go somewhere else that doesn’t have tea and cake! I also wanted to keep away from towns and cities. Too much familiarity, and I wanted to see if my Canon 6D Mark II still worked. It does. Yipee. And I wanted to set my self the constraint of using just my 50mm F1.8, the famous nifty fifty!

I love my Fujifilm cameras and haven’t switched back or anything but change is good.

It was a beautifully sunny day and just before midday. I got a sandwich at a bakery and headed off towards the coast. The car knows the first part of the way there as it’s the way to work. I passed the factory and gave her a swift hello. It looks so empty without her workers going about their daily duties. Maybe she needs a weekend as much as we do. Anyway…

I arrived at Beauvoir Sur Mer and passed the holiday home of a friend from the band. I didn’t see the car so continued without stopping. I arrived at the Port du Bec, and made my way down towards the boats wondering how those ramshackle wooden jetties can support the weight of a fisherman… Needless to say, I didn’t try to find out. Erring on the side of caution. I may not have the wisdom of an old man, but I’m not daft either. Maybe the beginnings of wisdom are that we know that we know nothing, but that we are too big to go and play silly buggers!

The blue sky was reflected in the sea. It felt great to be alive. The sun really makes a difference after so much rain. And I wasn’t the only one out. Over the bay I could see Noirmoutier in the distance protecting us from ravages of the Atlantic. All was calm. I like calm. I like calm about as much as I do tea and cake. I walked down to the sea and gently walked back towards the car and off to my next destination, the Passage du Gois.

The Passage du Gois is a passage. The clue is in the name… It is the passage between the mainland and the island of Noirmoutier on the Vendée coast. The particularity is that, like Lindesfarne in Northumberland, it is covered by the sea at high tide. However on the Passage du Gois, that tide can roll in faster than a galloping horse at a rather quick gallop.

One of the local spectator sports is watching motorists trying to beat the tide and there is a real danger that they might not make it. That’s what those beacons are for. They actually have a foot race where the runner finish with wet feet!

When the tide is out it’s a different matter all together. I once took a couchsurfer from the US there. We parked on the sand and watched people fishing for shellfish. She’d never seen anything like it in her life!

It felt great and the sea air always does me good. I might just have to go back…

The Port du Bec

The Passage du Gois

Zoo de la Palmyre

Over the Summer I did my best to not be anti-social and spend some time with my family instead of disappearing to go and take photos, and maybe eat cake and have a cup of tea. Hmmm, cake…

So, as a father I have to take everyone into account. We’d done a few visits to zoos in the past but had never been to the Palmyre. Well, why the heck not. Ok it’s about 2 hours away, but we can do that without wanting to kill each other. I let Virginie do the driving. Always best.

Many people have various opinions on zoos, ranging from how can you put animals in prison, to how great they are because of breeding programs etc. For me it’s about letting my family, and especially my children get to see animals up close, in a way that they could only see otherwise by travelling vast distances, or see in photos or on TV.

Even when passing from enclosure to enclosure, we take the time to see each animal, to see what it is doing, to see how it interacts with the other animals around it. We see where the animal would live in the wild, what it might eat, and through that information and observation we can maybe understand more about each animal. We also get to form a kind of relationship with the animal too. Even more so when it is fury and cute. But we see how strong they can be. Just look at the muscles on the chimpanzee. Some of the animals can be fed pop corn, which is conveniently on sale at the entrance to the zoo, and at various outlets within… We build a connection, even if it is by proxy. You can ask your child, “Well, which was your favourite animal?” And more importantly, “Why….?” The child will think about everything it has seen, and how those TV images have become more tangible.

For those of you interested in the purely photographical, the photos were taken on the Canon 6D Mark II, with the 75-300mm F4/5.6 zoom. I had no idea how to take photos of animals in a zoo, so treated the thing as a portrait shoot with various models, and not just fury cute ones…

Lourdes.

For those of you who don’t know Lourdes, let me tell you about it. It is no ordinary place, and there is a feeling of profound hope, and healing, that strikes you immediately. There are mountains, souvenir shops for Catholic pilgrims, and the sanctuary itself.

Oh. I said that “C” word again. Except this one doesn’t rhyme with “punt.” I am unashamedly Catholic, and had drifted from the church, but I wanted to drift back.

When people go on pilgrimages, even unofficial ones like this, we talk about the voyage being almost as important as the destination. This is, of course, not just the physical journey, but the mental, and spiritual voyage also. I’ve wanted to return to Lourdes since I was 9, and this time I took my son with me.

As a parent you can only do so much, and part of my faith is to know that I can’t control everything in my life, let alone in the lives of others, and that there is something else that is beyond my comprehension. I wanted to help my son in his life, and despite maintaining a dialogue, I had done as much as I could. I could do no more, so I asked Our Lady to look after him. We all need a mother, and most of the Jewish people that I know, seem to agree that a Jewish mother is the best. And you don’t need to be a Jewish to be a Jewish mother. It’s a state of mind. And if God decided on a Jewish mother for His Son, then it was good enough for me. As a Catholic, we see Mary as being a mother to all of us. So when the proverbial **** hits the fan, you ask your Mum if she can help, before you ask your (heavenly) Father. Mums have a way of talking to Dads that help make things alright.

That’s something I understood once I became a father myself. God has that relationship with us. In Judaism, and Christianity, He does anyway. A father loves his child. Even when that child is “naughty,” we still love them. We might punish them, but we always want to forgive them. God is the same with us. You could argue that it’s a way of showing humanity through divinity.

Wow, this got heavy all of a sudden!

Anyway. I went to Lourdes to try and reconcile myself with God. To ask forgiveness for my many sins, to make reparation, to heal, and to try and return towards my Father. We do this with our own fathers here on earth, and so it was the same process for my soul. Does that make sense?

My son was my carer, and he did his job admirably. He also benefitted from his trip. In the Sanctuary there is an overwhelming sense of peace. We went to the grotto, and prayed. We did the night time procession and recited the rosary holding our candles. We bathed in the baths with the water from the source that appeared when Mary asked Saint Bernadette to dig. That source is still there and provides water for the many pilgrims. We put some of that water into bottles to take home with us. I went to Confession.

We also went up a mountain, and came down again. It was almost as much a religious experience as the rest of the pilgrimage. When Moses goes up the mountain to receive the ten commandments it is to be closer to God. At the top of that mountain we saw a nun talking to a young friend. They were laughing and taking selfies. We saw a priest praying from his Brievery. It was a moving experience seeing the cloud coming over the summit. We saw the clouds clear, and we looked over the valley to the other mountains. I still don’t understand how people can look at that scenery and doubt the existence of a creator.

Anyway. Let’s talk about the photos. They were taken with the X100F which is compact enough not to be noticed, and a little less heavy than my DSLR and all the lenses that I use with it. It limits me, but makes it all simpler. No unnecessary questions about which lens to use etc. Feel free to comment on the article or the photos. Any feedback is always welcome.